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Dr. Toy’s Pointers on Play for Children with Special Needs
By Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D./Dr. Toy

Children with special needs may run the gamut from a severely disabled youngster to a child who is intellectually gifted. Properly selected playthings allow learning with less pressure to achieve and without generating a fear of failure. Because some play tasks are more challenging for a disabled child, he may not be motivated to play alone with the toy or game. Some handicapped children lack sufficient attention span to focus for more than a few minutes. Play with the child on his level. Don’t impose rigid rules, or the child may quickly become frustrated. Observing and following the child’s cues are basic to discovering what is appropriate to give him.

For example, one parent lamented: “I don’t enjoy reading to my child.  He doesn’t like it either. He keeps stopping me to tell what he sees in the pictures. He wants to tell the story himself.” But as I told the parent, this is wonderful!  His child is demonstrating two things: a marvelous creativity and a short attention span. The latter is unimportant. Let it improve at the child’s own pace. Focus on creativity and encourage it. It helps exercise his mental muscles. Building on the child’s strengths supports healthy development.

Depending on the type and degree of the child’s handicap, toys for a child’s chronological age may or may not be suitable.The reaction of a young disabled child to a new toy could be upbeat and rewarding or negative and discouraging. Gear your selections accordingly.

A challenged child will typically react with overt responsiveness to a toy he likes, but will be silent about a toy not meaningful to him. This youngster should have a good variety of safe toys, including some which offer a moderate degree of challenge. 

Seek guidance as needed from a pediatrician, social worker, therapist, or contact The National Lekotek Center (www.lekotek.org) and other organizations focused on special needs as resources for specific help. Look at the resources section in my book, Smart Play/ Smart Toys and on my site www.drtoy.com for more organizations that can be of assistance.         

Questions to ponder when selecting toys for the disabled are the same as those for any other child, but keep in mind her specific skills, needs, abilities, and readiness. Consider these elements:

Physical strength, coordination, and physical readiness.  Observe child moving, reaching, crawling, and pulling.  Which needs more help?  What can you provide to strengthen his muscles?  Can you attract the child’s attention? Can he see details on the toy? Can he follow objects like your moving finger?  Does she respond to sounds?  To action?  To touch?  Where is the child’s focus?  How can you assist in helping her with: reaching out and holding on to an object, letting it go, fitting things together, stringing beads?  Can you show her how to snap and unsnap, turn over, pull things apart, fit pieces together, fit shapes into forms, dump out and put back, compare big and little?  Is he able to handle cutting, drawing a picture, writing, throwing, catching, or climbing?  Have you tried helping him work with clay, finger paint, and dressing himself?

Mental ability and emotional developmental levels.  How can you assist a child to notice differences? See similarities?  Does he notice letters? Words? Feel good about himself? Will he look at the mirror? Pat parts of body and identify eyes, nose, mouth, ears? Does she gain self-control? Understand directions? Read letters? Understand important street signs?

Attention span and concentration skills. How can you assist her in: holding the rattle, putting rings on a stack, taking something apart and putting it together? How can you help him see where something has been hidden, find something, fit pieces of a puzzle together? When can you expect him to respond to a story; tell what came first; see what is big and little, tall and short, red and blue?

Ability to play with the toys alone or with others. How can you assist a child to feel good about what he accomplishes, feel pride in small tasks?  Must you actually teach her how to play alone, get along with another child for a period of time, or share things?

Potential enjoyment of the toy. Can you assist a child to enjoy a variety of toys?  With your help, can she explore new things and learn from them?  Make discoveries and be proud of them?

Development.  Children with special needs should be treated no differently than other developing children and with loving consideration of their disabilities. If you are a teacher, be aware that parents’ attitudes sometimes can get in the way of their child’s progress towards growth and independence. Be as sensitive as you can to parents’ and child’s feelings. Point out to parents that their emotions are influential. Help them to identify feelings. Especially if the parents have difficulty accepting any of the child’s problems, suggest they seek family counseling with a reputable therapist.  Being positive helps everyone make the most of the strengths of the child. #

Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, known as Dr. Toy™, speaker, author and consultant, is a former teacher who has written 15 books, among them Dr. Toy’s Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (Play Quotient), (Educational Insights). Her web site, “Dr. Toy’s Guide” www.drtoy.com, the first web site on the Internet on toys, provides information on over 3000 toys, games, and many other resources.



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